Are Scientific Researchers Too Influenced By Corporations?

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A researcher works in a laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on November 29, 2011. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

We like to think academic researchers are motivated purely by the desire to make progress in the fields of science and medicine. But a new report published Tuesday finds that as many as 1 in 10 board positions at for-profit health care companies are held by researchers affiliated with a nonprofit or academic institution. While there aren't any national guidelines set up to prevent these relationships, researchers and other experts say the overlap amounts to a huge conflict of interest and has the potential to influence academic work.

An investigation conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that academics serving on boards for companies were compensated an average of $193,000 in 2013, and also held equity. In total, the 279 board members affiliated with an academic institution received more than $54 million, and also owned 59 million shares of company stocks.

The investigation found that 180 of the companies (41 percent) had at least one board member who held a high-level post at an academic institution. These board members worked as full-time professors, trustees, chief executive officers, vice presidents, presidents, provosts, chancellors and deans from a total of 85 nonprofit and academic medical institutions in the U.S.

Under current guidelines laid out by the U.S. Physician Sunshine Act—passed as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010—all pharmaceutical and medical device companies are required to report any payments made to physicians and academic medical centers, including funding for research, travel, honorariums, speaking fees, meals and educational items. However, companies aren't required to report money that is paid to a board of directors.

"As our analysis shows, many academic leaders and professors in medicine may have significant industry relationships not captured by the Sunshine Act," Dr. Anderson, lead author of the analysis, said in a press statement. "Often when we talk about conflicts of interest in medicine, we are talking about physicians receiving pens and meals from sales representatives. The stakes are much higher for the board members in our study."

Many experts in the medical and science fields question the ethics of any large financial transactions between academics and big businesses that could potentially influence the direction of research and public health, including much-needed funding for research. The beverage industry has recently come under fire for funding scientific research that argues drinking soda isn't bad for you. And earlier in September, BMJ reported that a number of committee members tasked with drawing up new U.S. dietary guidelines had received large sums of money from food and health companies.

"[Integrity] must take precedence over individuals' compensation," David Rothman, professor at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a press statement. He warns that these high-paying board positions may go beyond consulting and collaboration to something more insidious.

The investigation was conducted by reviewing public disclosure statements of all publicly traded U.S. health care companies listed on the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange as of January 2014. The companies—442 in all—specialized in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical equipment and health care services.

Are Scientific Researchers Too Influenced By Corporations? | Tech & Science